Making bread is not hard. It can seem like a massive inconvenience, I mean isn’t that what Sainsbury’s is for? Why make a tomato sauce when you can buy Dolmio, why read a book when you can watch the film, why go to a museum when you browse the images online.
I guess it all comes down to how much value you place on the experience or the tangibility of the thing.
My weekly bread recipe uses sourdough starter or levain as it’s called in France (I prefer levain – it sounds less…. sour). Again, using something like levain to make bread seems like a huge amount of extra effort to go to, but I promise it isn’t. It is more involved, it does take longer, but it’s really not that hard. I think the problem that most people have with it, and the reason most people don’t do it is because it requires planning and doesn’t give instant results.
Creating your own levain starter takes a couple of weeks. Baking a levain loaf happens over the course of 24 hours. Here’s the thing though – nothing worth doing is quick. I know that sounds like something your dad might say, but it’s true.
The planning, implementation and fulfilment of bread-making isn’t the main point, but it anchors the output, imbuing it with a value that exceeds that of the actual product.
Let me unpack that (pardon the pun) a little.
Good bread tastes great. Good bread that you have made tastes better because it’s a product of your time, your skill and the value you place on it. The same is true for any activity that could easily be replaced by an amazon click or a visit to the shops.
A walk in the woods is more fulfilling and nourishing than a drive past some woods. A log fire provides more than the simple warmth of a radiator.
Tangibility. Effort. Materials. Skill. Time. If you add these things together you will almost always get something out the other end that has more intrinsic worth than the mass produced consumer version or the easier route.
My bread recipe comes in two parts, since I’m going to share how to create your own levain. There’s some really good reasons for using levain rather than yeast.
- Taste – Sourdough bread has a more complex and satisfying flavour
- Freshness – My sourdough loaves generally last all week. They don’t go mouldy and whilst they do lose their fresh baked fluffiness, they don’t go stale as quickly
- Digestibility – This is the big one for me and Laura. The levain yeast and lactobacillus ferments the wheat in a way that commercial yeast does not. It works over a longer period of time. The result is a bread that doesn’t bloat you and it far more digestible for people who suffer from wheat intolerance.
My Bread Recipe
Wholemeal organic rye flour
There’s a load of ways to catch a starter. Just google it and see!
The way I captured the starter I’ve been using for the last 5 years was to mix a cup of organic wholemeal rye flour with some warm water and leave it in a Kilner jar with the lid on loosely.
After a couple of days the liquid should start bubbling. If it hasn’t after 3 days chuck it and start again.
If it is bubbling, ‘feed it’ with another cup and some water. Aim to get a very thick batter consistency.
The next day it should still be bubbling. Discard half the mixture and add a cup of flour and some water.
Repeat this daily for a week.
The mixture should be active – in that it bubbles up over night after feeding. Congratulations, you now have a starter. Keep it alive by feeding it every couple of days. If you’re not using it discard some of the mix every few days. This helps to keep the toxins that may harm the yeasts at an acceptable level. If you’re not going to need it for a while you can stick it in the fridge and it will slow the process down. When you need to bake, get it out of the fridge a couple of days before and feed it.
Ingredients (two large loaves)
1kg Strong bread flour
Ladle full of levain starter
The night before you want to bake, mix 500g of flour with the ladle of starter and 500mls of water. Cover and leave in a warm room.
In the morning, add the other 500g of flour and the salt. Mix it together and then knead the dough for 10 minutes making sure that you stretch the dough out as much as possible.
Shape the dough into a ball by folding it into itself. Place into a large oiled bowl and cover with clingfilm. Leave for an hour or so. This bit is called proving.
Hopefully the dough will have increased in size. Prod it down with the fingers of both hands then remake the ball by stretching it over into itself, rotating the bowl with each fold (this is called knocking back)
Cover and leave for a couple more hours, then knock back again. Then in a couple of hours (or when it’s doubled in size) knock it back again.
Now, with a sharp knife cut the dough into two.
The next bit is vital to get a good shape and rise. There are loads of ways of doing this, but this is what I do and it works for me.
Take one of the halves. Prod it flat with your finger tips, then fold the top edge and the bottom edge into the middle to form a long dough sausage. Take one end of the sausage and fold it to the middle, then take the other end and fold it over the top. You’ll end up with a stubby tube. The idea is to stretch the gluten even more.
Now shape the dough ball into more of a round, and place smooth side down into the proving basket or tea towel bowl (after coating either bowl or basket with flour).
Sprinkle more flour on the expose top of the dough and cover with clingfilm.
Leave for at least a couple of hours until the dough has risen.
30 mins before you want to bake set the oven at the maximum temperature.
Ideally you’ll have a baking stone (about £10 from Sainsbury’s or Amazon) – you could use a tray, but a stone is better. Have the stone in the oven on a middle shelf so it heats up with the oven. Also put a roasting tray at the bottom of the oven.
Turn out one of the proved loaves onto the floured peel. Using a sharp knife slash the top of the loaf. This enables it to rise. Slashing is a personal thing. Experiment with different methods (just make sure the knife is super sharp).
Slide the dough directly onto the pizza stone. And pour a glass of water into the hot baking tray at the bottom of the oven (the steam helps to get a good crust).
Close the door and bake at maximum temperature for 10 minutes.
Open the door and check the bread (I normally rotate it 180º). Turn the oven down to 150º and leave it to bake for a further 40 minutes.
Leave the bread to cool on a cooling rack (tempting as it might be, the loaves need to cool down a bit as they continue to cook after you remove them from the oven).
You can freeze one of the loaves if you want, they freeze really well.
Enjoy your bread! And share your successes and failures with us. I guarantee there will be good bakes and bad ones. I still have baking disasters, but every time I mess up I learn something new about baking levain bread.